Concession-ridden contract voted down by rank and file

NYC transit workers defy anti-strike laws and treacherous union officials

by Mark Williams
(CV #37, Feb. 2006)

Strikers defy the capitalist authorities
TWU Local 100 leaders follows the lead of the sellout union bureaucracy
A contract worthy of rejection
TWU Local 100 lashes out against contract opponents
Can the rank and file regroup for struggle?

. On December 20th, 34,000 New York City transit workers defied anti-strike laws and went on strike for their contract demands against the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). While billionaire Mayor Bloomberg and Republican Governor Pataki got the courts to impose massive fines and threaten to jail union leaders and workers, the transit workers calmly went about shutting off the transportation arteries of the city. While the mainstream media unleashed a hysterical campaign against the workers, the workers stayed defiant and garnered sympathy from working class and national minority neighborhoods. With the strike threatening the profits of the business community during the holiday season, and the capitalist authorities pulling out all the stops to crush the struggle, a sharp class battle had begun. Though the transit workers faced a daunting struggle, they were digging in for a fight.

. But the allegedly militant leadership of Transit Workers Local 100 proved incapable of standing up to the furious assault of the capitalist establishment. After only three days, TWU Local 100 president Roger Toussaint announced the strike was over. He tried to sell the workers a contract with concessions though the MTA was running a billion dollar surplus. Adding insult to injury, Gov. Pataki threatened to take away what gains there were in the contract. But the rank and file were not cowed down by the bluster of Pataki. Nor were they about to follow the lead of the timid union leadership. A campaign to vote "no" on the contract organized by dissident union activists struck a responsive chord. On January 20, the transit workers voted down the contract by seven votes. Left for dead by the MTA bosses and the capitalist politicians, and abandoned by the union hierarchy, the rank and file showed its resolve. The transit workers struggle lives! Now the question is whether the rank and file can use the momentum from the rejection of the contract to further their ability to independently mobilize themselves. This is what will be needed in the face of the vicious attacks of the capitalist establishment and the treachery of the union bureaucracy.

Strikers defy the capitalist authorities

. The strike, however brief, was a breath of fresh air for workers everywhere who are tired of being ground down by profit-hungry CEOs or by capitalist politicians who want public employees to shoulder the burden of government budget crises. In their last contract battle in 2002, union leader Toussaint refused to strike and transit workers were saddled with major concessions which helped the MTA amass their $1 billion budget surplus. But that wasn't good enough for the MTA bosses and the city and state administrations. They demanded further concessions. In particular they wanted a new two-tier pension system that would hammer new hires. First, the MTA wanted to raise the retirement age for new hires from the present 55 to 62. This demand was withdrawn in negotiations, but as the clock ran down to the expiration of the old contract, the MTA proposed new hires pay 6% of their wages into the pension fund, three times the 2% paid by present workers. This was part of the MTA's miserable "final offer". TWU president Toussaint had hoped to avoid a strike, was willing to take certain concessions and even negotiated for several days after the old contract expired. But the arrogant demands of the MTA, and the pressure for struggle from the rank and file, forced him to call a strike.

. The politicians and the courts sprung into action to crush the workers. Republican Gov. Pataki and Republican Mayor Bloomberg led the charge. Pataki is seeking the Republican nomination for president, and wanted to demonstrate to the capitalist class that he would take a hard-line stance against strikes and unions. The big business mouthpiece Wall St. Journal cheered on his efforts, editorializing that "If New York Governor George Pataki really has ambitions for President in 2008, here's a way he can demonstrate leadership to a national audience. Stand up to the transit workers union .  .  . ". Pataki made it clear to MTA chairman Peter Kalikow that he would not tolerate giving an inch to the strikers. And he had the state government obtain an injunction against the workers under the anti-worker Taylor Law. The injunction fined workers two day's pay for each day on strike and cleared the way to jail union officials and rank and file workers. Bloomberg, the billionaire mayor, denounced the workers as "selfish" and "thugs". And he got a judge to impose a fine of $1 million per strike day against the union. For good measure, government officials are still trying to get the courts to end dues check-off for the union in order to financially cripple it. Meanwhile, the MTA threatened to fire a section of workers. The response of the politicians and courts showed their true class nature as tools of the capitalists against the workers. Not to be outdone, the right-wing media went into a frenzy. For example, the New York Post, owned by billionaire media mogul Rupert Murdoch (who also owns Fox News), likened the strikers to the 9-11 terrorists.

. The pro-capitalist nature of the government and courts is not simply because Republicans happen to be the mayor and governor. While Pataki and Bloomberg have taken a particularly harsh stance against the workers, the Democratic Party is also devoted to keeping the workers in line. They too are championing the neo-liberal agenda. Democratic mayors across the country are on a rampage to make public sector workers pay for their budget problems. And the Democrats, as defenders of capitalism, can't tolerate workers taking matters into their own hands. Take the stand of NY Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, a candidate for governor of the state. Republican candidates for governor chided Spitzer for not calling for strikers to be fired. But actually Spitzer was busy crushing the workers. He issued a statement explaining his office obtained a court order banning the strike and imposing $1 million per day fines on the union in addition to Taylor law fines being imposed on each worker. Spitzer's statement concludes "Hopefully, these cumulative sanctions will result in a termination of the strike. If not, my office will be back in court seeking additional penalties until this strike is ended. " And NY State Senator Hillary Clinton, while proclaiming herself "neutral" on the strike, also declared she supported the strike-breaking Taylor Law.

. However brief the strike, it showed the willingness of the workers to stand up to the repressive capitalist institutions. Indeed, by all indications, had it not been for the sudden capitulation of the TWU leadership, the workers would have fought on. At a time when workers regularly have concessions rammed down their throats, at a time when the mainstream union leaders quake in fear of militant struggle, the transit strikers showed workers can defy the powers-that-be and defend their living and working conditions.

TWU Local 100 leaders follows the lead of the sellout union bureaucracy

. Unfortunately, the leadership of TWU Local 100 was not interested in carrying the struggle through. Local 100 president Roger Toussaint had a militant history as a rank-and-file activist and still has certain contradictions with the more blatant sellout union officials. But he generally takes up the same class collaborationist approach as the mainstream bureaucrats. In launching the strike, Toussaint defied the pressure of sellout international TWU president Michael O'Brien. O'Brien strong-armed the local union to get it to accept the "last offer" of the MTA, refused to authorize the strike, threatened to put the local union in receivership, and demanded obedience to the strike-breaking injunctions. But Toussaint himself was ready to call off the struggle if only the MTA bosses reconfigured their concessions demands. Moreover, while he disobeyed the traitorous O'Brien, Toussaint relied on the advice of timid, class collaborationist officials from other area unions rather than basing his tactics on what the rank and file was willing to do.

. According to the New York Times, various New York City area union officials friendly with Toussaint encouraged him to call off the strike. In fact, New York area union leaders refused to utter a word of support for the strike, much less engage in acts of solidarity. The most they would do was say the MTA pension demand was unfair. Reportedly, this lack of solidarity was upsetting to Toussaint. But at the same time, Toussaint was engineering a back-room deal with the MTA via these same labor traitors. He sent Bruce S. Raynor, president of Unite Here, and Mike Fishman, president of building service workers' Local 332BJ of the SEIU to ask Mayor Bloomberg to help get negotiations going again. These two were well-suited to the job as they shamelessly had backed the billionaire Republican in his mayoral race. Raynor told Bloomberg that Toussaint was willing to accept having the workers pay higher health care contributions. Toussaint also told United Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten (who had backed Pataki for governor) and NYC Labor Council president Brian M. McLaughlin that the strike would be over if only the MTA's pension demand was rescinded. In turn, Weingarten and McLaughlin made this know to MTA president Kalikow. Toussaint's willingness to trade one concession for another, and call off a strike that was very costly to city business interests, was an offer Bloomberg couldn't resist. Within a day the strike was called off.

. Toussaint, like most trade union bureaucrats, also put his trust in Democratic Party politicians. He had backed failed Democratic New York City mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer. But Ferrer was silent during the strike. Toussaint promoted Hillary Clinton, and she backed the strikebreaking Taylor Law. One of Toussaint's advisors during the strike was Bill Lynch, who had served as city deputy mayor under former Democratic mayor David Dinkens. Lynch has been a campaign consultant for Hillary Clinton and Ferrer among others. And, according to an article by Jack Newfield in the Oct. 15, 2001 issue of New York Magazine, it was Lynch who "delivered" Toussaint to the Ferrer campaign. Lynch expressed enthusiasm for the back room deal via Bloomberg's offices. Toussaint's reliance on the Democrats goes to the point that his lead negotiator in the 2002 concessions-filled contract was former Democratic NY State Senator Basil Patterson.

. When Toussaint declared the strike, the power of the transit workers was released. But his faith was not in the rank and file, but in an alliance with the Democrats and various case-hardened union bureaucrats. This is what spelled the death of the struggle.

A contract worthy of rejection

. The result of the backroom deal with Bloomberg and the MTA was a contract worthy of rejection. True, it wasn't a contract that completely devastates the workers like the Delphi auto parts executives are trying to impose. But its also far short of what the workers expected, deserved and were ready to fight for. Moreover, it comes on top of a 2002 concessions contract that resulted in a loss in real wages, elimination of a no-layoff clause, and major productivity measures through job combination.

. The defeated contract's wage settlement would have most likely resulted in lower wages when the rising cost-of-living is figured in. Wages would further be reduced because the new health care concession would siphon off 1. 5% of wages to health care contributions. Moreover, the percent of wages paid to health care would rise year after year under a complex formula that links contributions to rising health costs. This health contribution concession would have been a setback for all city workers. City officials have made it clear that they want similar concessions from all these unions, and imposing this on a union with a militant reputation paved the way for these plans.

. Another financial setback for the workers was that the settlement failed to rescind the fines of about $1,000/worker, not to mention some $3 million dollars in fines on the union. But Toussaint never even raised a demand for amnesty from these penalties. The Local 100 leadership has confined itself to challenging the fines and other penalties in the courts, which have been hostile to the workers.

. The MTA withdrew its pension proposal as part of the deal. But this may only be a temporary reprieve. The state legislature can rewrite the pension laws, and Gov. Pataki certainly seems willing to organize a big campaign to do so. So the workers didn't see the MTA's momentary retreat on pensions as a sufficient reason to support the contract.

The agreement also would have eliminated the December expiration date for contracts. The December expiration date meant contract battles took place during peak holiday shopping season, when there would be the maximum impact on business profits. Thus, the union leaders agreed to make strikes less effective.

. There were some gains in the contract, but even here there were some problems in the fine print. The main enticement for voting for the contract was that about 20,000 workers who had overpaid into the pension system would supposedly get a refund of about $10,000 each on average. The MTA said it would support state legislation to see this happens, but there's no guarantee that this legislation will pass, especially since Gov. Pataki has been waging an all-out campaign against giving the workers anything. If no legislation was forthcoming, the MTA promised to make good on the refunds with their own funds. But if the MTA pays for the refunds, they could be taxed at 49%. So actually, the only guarantee is that the workers will get about half of what they overpaid into the pension system. As well, workers hired after the 1999 contract would not benefit from this. And while some workers would have gotten a large amount of cash, it was a one-time payment. By contrast, the health contribution concession was a structural change that will cost the workers year after year. In fact, it is estimated that the MTA will save about $100 million from this concession over the life of the contract, compared to around $20 million they would have saved under the pension proposal they withdrew.

TWU Local 100 lashes out against contract opponents

. The workers had many legitimate reasons to vote down the contract. If Toussaint was really interested in building a militant workers' movement, he would have admitted he erred and pledged to resume the struggle. But Toussaint has made clear that he is not interested in resuming the strike. Why is he opposed to resuming a militant fight? Has the MTA softened its stance? No. The MTA recently proposed a new contract far worse than the rejected contract. It was so bad Toussaint refused to take it to the membership for a vote. Toussaint is also right to oppose the binding arbitration that the MTA wants as this would prevent workers from voting on a contract and leave the contract in the hands of officially neutral, but actually pro-capitalist, arbiters. But Toussaint's alternative is to simply negotiate a deal with the MTA without having the leverage provided by a militant struggle. This means relying on the good will of the very forces Toussaint says are trying to crush the workers and the union. It means repeating the same treachery that undermined the workers during the strike.

. Meanwhile, Toussaint continues to insist the defeated contract was great and that the main opposition was right-wing. He refuses to acknowledge that the workers could evaluate it and conclude it was inadequate or that many workers felt the strike was called off prematurely. The main reason the contract was voted down, as Toussaint tells it, is that workers were duped by right-wing union dissidents in league with Bush, Pataki, and Bloomberg. In a TV interview on Gabe Pressman's News Forum on the local NBC affiliate, he says the dissidents "are primarily a right-wing opposition that has consistently advocated within our union support for the Bush administration, support for Pataki, and for Mayor Bloomberg. "

. As a matter of fact there are influential left-wing forces in the union opposed to the contract that hate Pataki, Bloomberg and the right-wing in general. Unlike Toussaint, some of them don't like the Democrats either. But Toussaint, a former rank-and-file militant, does not want to admit that rank-and-file militancy could have anything to do with his contract being rejected. As for alliances with right-wing forces, it was Toussaint who relied on pro-Pataki and pro-Bloomberg union bureaucrats in his back room deal with Bloomberg and the MTA. So evidently the right-wing conspiracy involved Toussaint himself! After all, he actually capitulated to the right wing. If some right-wing elements are cynically using this capitulation for their own rotten ends, Toussaint should blame himself.

Can the rank and file regroup for struggle?

. The workers were right to vote down the contract. They are again showing their combative spirit in the face of severe attacks on them by the capitalist establishment. The rank and file is also showing more resolve than their supposedly militant union leadership. Hopefully, the rejection of the contract will be the first step to the rank and file being able to conduct further mass actions that pressure the MTA bosses to meet their demands. But even if a new round of worker actions doesn't break out around the contract, if the rejection impels an increase in fighting rank-and-file organization, this will be an important victory. This will allow the rank and file to increasingly take matters into their own hands and overcome the maneuvers of treacherous union officials.

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March 9, 2006.